I bought Widmer's Mormonism and the Nature of God: A Theological Evolution, 1830 - 1915 after reading a favorable review of it at the Mormon History Association web site. (It's no longer available online) A few other people told me it was good so I purchased it in what may be my last big buy of books for a while. As I tend to do with these sorts of books I did an quick initial read followed up by a more careful reading. After my first read I thought the book was highly flawed. On my second read I thought he made a lot of good points and arguments. On my third read I noticed a few of the things he ommitted as well as a few significant inconsistencies. I'm still trying to decide if it is a good book or not.
I should add that David Paulsen, a philosopher I respect, did a review of the book for FARMS a few years back. I only read the review fairly recently, but it generally accorded with many of my criticisms. I do want to bring up a few issues though that I think are fairly problematic. The first is whether it is really apt to apply fairly technical philosophical labels to writings that do not adhere to a careful vocabulary or don't make fairly unambiguous philosophical arguments. Without those, all one is doing is reading into language a particular position. To read into such texts fairly sophisticated positions from the history of Christianity in late antiquity seems somewhat misleading. At first Widmer seems to agree.
[Smith's] concept of the divine is an early 19th-century layman's interpretaion of Trinitarianism. ... Perhaps this definition was no different than the rest of the laity's, that sat in both Catholic and Protestant churches in the early 19th century. (53)
Despite this recognition, which he pays lip service to in many places, Widmer asserts that Smith had a uniqute form of modalism in which "God was only one being, who manifested himself in varying modes." (52) Widmer never clarifies what he means by varying modes, but one expects that they are different modes the way I can be a father, a student, a customer, and a businessman. The difficulty with this view is that Widmer never brings to the fore and explains the passages that seem to treat multiple beings within the One God. 3 Nephi is filled with them. Certainly these passages can be interepreted in a modalistic fashion, just as modalists have interpreted similar passages in the New Testament. But Widmer must explain why the prima facie reading is the correct one. Now I must in fairness recognize that Widmer says that Joseph Smith isn't consistent. He acknowledges that 3 Nephi is anti-modalistic. But why should we consider these cases simple inconsistencies rather than a manifestation of a more complex view? Further, if the Book of Mormon is, as it purports to be, a translation of texts written by various authors, editors and redactors, then must the thesis that different authors have different "lay" views of God be addressed? For instance many Christians acknowledge that in the Old Testaments a clear understanding of the Trinity might not have been understood and communicated. Yet they might simultaneously argue that a distinction between the Father and Son becomes clear after Christ's advent. Why can this same argument not be made of the Book of Mormon? It is worth noting that the clearest anti-modalistic passages Widmer notes take place after the coming of Christ.
What is unfortunate in the book is that Widmer never really engages these opposing points of view.
I do want to bring up his main arguments. Now clearly Mosiah 15 can be read modalistically. Indeed that's a rather plain reading of it. However an other reading is in terms of pre-Christian angelology. Margaret Barker's The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God offers a significant other approach. Given the fact that in many texts, such as the Enochean literature, the visible God is the lesser YHWH who has YHWH's name, I think we should be cautious about reading to much theologically into a passage that may read in an other fashion when compared to the purported context which it claims. The notion of Metatron and other such angels truly offer interesting parallels to Mosiah 15. Blake Ostler in particular has provided consistent readings of the Book of Mormon and Mosiah 15 in particular that avoid modalism without getting metaphorical with the text. If a text can be read in a consistent fashion, shouldn't it? Even if one doesn't accept the reading, one really ought to at least engage it.
Beyond Mosiah 15 though we have one more strong argument for Widmer's thesis. He quotes 2 Nephi 11:7 (mislabled in the book as chapter 8) to make the argument that there is no God other than Christ (in the sense of no being).
For if there be no Christ there be no God; and if there be no God we are not, for there could have been no creation. But there is a God, and he is Christ, and he cometh in the fulness of his own time.
To assert that this requires modalism seems difficult. After all it might be necessary, given the existence of a God for there to be a Messiah and atoner. This doesn't say there is only one being that is God, merely that there must be a Christ if there is God and that Christ is God. Yet this argument would fit trinitarianism, modalism, as well as mainstream Mormon views. That Christ is both Father and Son is accepted, even today by Mormons. It is not enough to take this and assume it would have been read modally. One must show how the basic conception of modalism, one being, falls out of it. Yet this can't be done because the very notion of one being is never discussed in the Book of Mormon. Instead Widmer primarily leans on the fact that names and terms are applied to a being which are applied to different beings in a trinitarian perspective. We have further an argument from silence. "...no clear, consistent, distinction is made between 'the Father' and 'the Son' within the Book of Mormon prior to is revision in 1837." (36) To simply move from this to a theological reading is problematic without compelling reasons. Without those reasons one is simply making a modalistic reading of the Book of Mormon, just as some ancient Christians read the Bible modally. It is further problematic given later LDS theology in which numerous beings are Fathers and Sons. To say that this later theology is not clearly presented in the Book of Mormon seems clear. To say that this later theology isn't held within the Book of Mormon is much more difficult. Given the lack of clear theological pronouncements, it seems safe to say that a theological position simply isn't taken by the text.
Now of course the book doesn't simply rely on the Book of Mormon. Widmer's real argument rests on what is outside that book. We have for instance his claim that in other writings from 1830 - 1835 modalism was taught. This is problematic since he simply excludes many anti-modalistic passages. He doesn't really grapple, for instance, with D&C 76:20 which was a vision where Jesus and the Father are seen as two separate beings. (One is to the right of the other) This same imagery of the Son on the right of the Father is found in many Mormon texts, just as it is in the Bible. While Widmer certainly can read these metaphorically, it surely is up to him to at least attempt to do so. By the same measure he neglects the many passages in Moses which speak of a plurality of beings within the Godhead. Even if he sees this as a slow development from modalism to a more trinitarian view, he must do so. At best we have inconsistencies, yet once again Widmer never acknowledges that these inconsistencies might be better and more simply explained as the early Mormons being non-modalists.
I don't want to give the impression the book is bad. It is simply that he doesn't really engage with alternative views, tending to simply discount all other evidence as inconsistencies. Further he never really explains this conflict between rather technical theology and simple lay perceptions of the nature of God. He attempts to have Joseph answering the theological questions regarding the Being of God without really having Joseph address them. Further, was the Being of God really a big issue in Joseph's day? If it was and Joseph was addressing it, wouldn't we expect something more clear than what Widmer admits is anything but? The later sections of the book are far better. But in those cases we have texts that actually address the nature of God more directly. The problem with the early section is that it sounds very plausible until you realize that much of the argument is an argument from silence.
There is one more claim in the book I wish to address. Widmer claims that "[n]owhere in the Book of Mormon can one find the concept of human perfectability..." (29) This was in connection to various early 19th century views about human perfectability, especially as became manifest in the transcendental movement with figures like Emerson. While I don't think the Book of Mormon teaches those movement's beliefs, there clearly are many clear passages about human perfectability - acknowledging that the meaning of perfection may be vague. Certainly the later expansions of human perfection entailed in Nauvoo theology aren't clearly taught. However we have in 3 Nephi 12:48 the statement "I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is heaven is perfect." (Quoting Matt 5:48) We also have the claim that we will have perfect knowledge in 2 Nephi 9:13. We have the claim that we can be perfected in Christ in Moroni 10:32. There are others, but one passage often tied to the perfectability of humans is also neglected by Widstoe - that of Helaman 10 which is often read by modern Mormons as relating to perfection. Of course this somewhat begs the question of the meaning of perfection. But the kind of meaning to perfection Widmer gives is an Emersonian perspective. Helaman 10 has many elements of Emerson's notion of perfection in it. Some would read Alma 13 as teaching similar principles. As I said, one must be clear what one means by perfection. But even the limited discussion of it Widmer makes seems present in the text.
So is it a good book? It certainly isn't a bad one. From the above criticisms you might think I hate it. I don't. Unfortunately most books both critical and apologetic of LDS theology tend to have a thesis and simply stick to it. I understand that perspective. However I think to be fair, one simply can't argue a thesis. One must also discover the alternative thesis and argue against them. And it is there that Widmer fails. While I definitely think a book on the theological evolution of LDS thought is useful, the problem is that this book assumes that the evolution is simply an evolution of clear determined positions. Yet, I think that the evolution is much less an evolution between positions (although that definitely is present) than an evolution from vagueness to determined theological positions. While there were rather significant theological development, to read the development as the acceptance and rejection of various incompatible theological positions is incorrect.
I'm not opposed to books that don't take an LDS position. For instance for all its flaws I rather liked Brooke's The Refiner's Fire and have many other non-LDS theology oriented histories. While I disagree with him vigorously, I must confess enjoying some of Vogel's readings of LDS thought in terms of the myths and legends of the time. Quinn's Early Mormonism and the Magic World View is enjoyable as well, although very deeply flawed. I think that Mormon apologists sometimes downplay the evolution and correction of theology over time. It is a central theological position of LDS though that our ideas evolve. There is nothing like Protestant conceptions of inerrancy or infallibility in LDS thought. Having said that though I think some are too quick to latch on to superficial readings, sometimes confusing how an audience might read a text with the range of possible meanings the text has. If there is a weakness in LDS history (from both sides) it is to neglect that notion of vagueness and indeterminacy in history. Perhaps that is a product of our culture which wants clarity and opinion and not recognition of ignorance or mere possibility.
So is it good or bad? Well, it is much more flawed than Quinn but attempts far less. Overall I'd give it middling marks, but find that is is vastly overpriced at $45. Had I known its flaws I definitely wouldn't have bought it.